The curious conundrum that is Ben Wheatley’s A Field In England fascinates for many reasons. Not only is it an exquisitely beautiful black-and-white, historical, drug-addled trip, but its method of distribution (excuse the geek-out) could pave the way for new release models never before tried in the UK.
Industry talk aside, the film itself shows Wheatley’s remarkable talent for working with a minimal budget yet still being capable of creating a film that intrigues, delights and rewards. The whole tale takes place in a field at the close of a bloody battle during the Civil War (which we only hear, masked as it is behind a thick, brambly hedge), where a group of deserters flee the scene only to end up gobbling shrooms as they're set the task of finding hidden treasure by diabolical alchemist O’Neil (played by a ferocious Michael Smiley). Included in this merry band of fellows is the cowardly Whitehead (played by the excellent – and underused – Reece Shearsmith of The League Of Gentlemen fame).
Those who have followed Wheatley’s career will recognise his stylistic traits (although this is an acutely unique piece of filmmaking), at times reminding us of the more surreal and occult moments in Kill List. However, those who have only seen his black-comedy Sightseers (written by Alice Lowe and Steve Oram) should be prepared for an altogether different direction.
What follows is a high-art (high in more than one sense of the word) experiment paying homage to the likes of The Scarlet Blade mashed with old-skool Hammer Horror. There is a constantly foreboding atmosphere, neatly represented at one point in a menacing, mesmeric black sun that is hallucinated by Whitehead dominating the skyline. Creeping ever closer in a sinister manner, it crafts one of the most beguiling scenes in the film. There's a touch of the horrific about it all, and the field feels almost magical (in a decidedly non-Hogwarts manner) as we witness a battle of wills between the small cast.
Richard Glover does a comic turn as a Falstaffian fool, offering up the odd lute-twanged medley establishing the context of this historical drama-cum-horror. But it’s the relationship between Whitehead and O’Neil that genuinely steals the show. Both are alchemists (although Shearsmith is the junior of the two), who know each other from a previous encounter. They duel in words as much as magic, in a pithy and eloquent script from Amy Jump (Wheatley’s creative collaborator and wife).
This is stylistically wrapped together with beautiful freeze-frames, straight-to-camera soliloquies, topped off with a healthy dose of crass British humour to lighten the mood. It’s all accompanied by terrifying sound design, making the film feel much larger than the on-screen action; a deft trick if ever there was one.
With A Field In England, Wheatley has done nothing less than create a haunting, eloquent and hypnotic box of delights.
'A Field In England' is released on VOD, DVD, Blu-ray and in cinemas this Friday.
Image via Film4